The summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a curious event. Most of the year, the organization toils in obscurity, but its annual heads-of-state meeting invariably elicits breathless commentary about the rise of a bloc that is designed to stop the West or, more specifically, the United States from expanding its influence in Central Asia.
This year’s one-day meeting was no exception, although the presence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad compounded concern about SCO. The worries are premature: SCO is a relatively young organization whose future is unclear. Its members have genuine security concerns that they cannot tackle individually. Regional cooperation makes a lot of sense. If SCO helps provide stability to a troubled region, then it should be supported, not criticized.
SCO was formed in 1996; it was then known as the Shanghai Five, taking its name from the city in which the leaders first met, and included Russia, China, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The organization focused on resolving border disputes and battling the terrorist and separatist groups found throughout the territories of the member states. When Uzbekistan joined the group in 2001, SCO was born.
At that time, leaders declared that their purpose was fighting the three “isms” terrorism, separatism and extremism and promoting economic development. Of course, Central Asia’s rich energy resources made it a natural object of diplomacy; its history as part of the former Soviet Union and its proximity to China’s restive western provinces gave Moscow and Beijing ample reasons to seek to extend their influence to the region.
The authoritarian tendencies of the six-member governments prompted speculation that the group’s “other” purpose was to resist the application of democratic norms and shield members from international scrutiny of their human-rights policies. Western concerns were amplified at last year’s summit when the leaders called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Central Asia, a step that seemed to be at odds with the organization’s avowed purpose of fighting terrorism.
Four countries are currently SCO observers Iran, Mongolia, India and Pakistan and they are pressing for full membership. Other countries have also expressed interest in joining.
Iran’s presence triggered the most alarm at this year’s meeting. Tehran is currently embroiled in a controversy over its nuclear program. Much of the world is convinced that Iran is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite assurances to the contrary. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech to the group, in which he called for expanding the group and using it to shield members from international scrutiny “prevent domineering powers from aggressively interfering in global affairs” confirmed the fears of many SCO critics. His offer to host a meeting on energy cooperation for member countries looked like an attempt to create a new bloc of energy producers.
SCO members countered that those worries are overblown, arguing that the group promotes stability in a troubled region and will not develop into an anti-Western bloc (or the military alliance envisioned by some of the more imaginative observers). Nonetheless, Chinese President Hu Jintao provided ammunition for critics when he called on the rest of the world to “accept the social system and path to development independently chosen by our members and observers, and respect the domestic and foreign policy of SCO participants in line with their national conditions.”
Member countries do share security concerns, as Central Asian governments in particular are largely unable to deal with terrorists and extremists on their soil. Any organization that increases their capacity to counter these menaces is to be applauded. The countries of the region need to be better integrated into the world economy, for development will be a key tool in stemming the spread of terrorism. All SCO members, especially China, should be encouraged to embrace cooperative approaches to problem solving.
More cynically, Moscow and Beijing are natural competitors for influence in the region. Over time, their differences will become manifest and prevent SCO from emerging as a coherent organization to “counter” the West. These differences are especially clear when it comes to energy politics. Russia wants to control energy supplies as much as possible, while China seeks more access to resources. Central Asian producers are not likely to be happy relying on Russian pipelines for access to the world.
These geopolitical realities will shape SCO’s future. Given the threats in Central Asia and their potential to spread to the region’s neighbors and beyond, efforts to better combat those menaces should be encouraged, not condemned.
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